24 July 2006


This blog contains four weeks' worth of diary entries written from Monday 26 June - Sunday 23 July, whilst I was taking part in the project 'Part-time'.

The diary entries are published in chronological order. Therefore to start from the beginning of the project you must read the blog from the bottom of the page upwards, or access the individual day diaries using the menu on the right.

The brief for 'Part-time' was for the three artists taking part: myself, Joanna Spitzner and Liz Kearney to find a 'normal job' that they could perform for 20 hours a week. Unfortunately none of us, including our commissioner Prime, had anticipated just how difficult it would be to find work. Despite more than two weeks preparation, when I began the project on Monday 26 June I was still unemployed.

My experience of 'Part-time' became a rollercoaster adventure in job seeking and an exploration in the world of recruitment. I was quickly forced to drop all my standards and be prepared to do anything. Personal highlights include:

- My run-in with a door-to-door sales racket masterminded by the evil Cobra Group.

- My two days spent working for Labour Ready in a bizarre family run warehouse on the outskirts of Nottingham.

- And my education in office politics working as a temp for international construction company Gleeds.

At the start of each day's dairy entry, the 24 hour colour-coded Timeline for that period is published. These Timelines are the result of the intensive recording process I carried out for the duration of the project, in which I kept a log of every activity I performed. By cross-referencing the anecdotes recounted in the diary entries with the Key it should be possible to pinpoint particular events on the Timelines.

23 July 2006

End Game

The last day of the 'Part-time' eventually reared its ugly head. From the first week, this day - 23 July, seemed an eternity away. I never thought I would make it.

The second day of the Hen Weekend went very quickly. We left at 13:05, but I was made to spend the entire morning compiling a photo album of images donated by all the people attending, which was presented to the hen before we left.

By the 28th day, recording things had really become second nature. It was still a chore, but it was also well engrained into my routine - I went everywhere with my watch, Log Book and pen and that-was-that. During the leisure time of the past two days however, such a laborious task felt somewhat out of place.

I manage to keep my records up to date never-the-less. A few people spotted me and asked what I kept writing down. After I got to know them a bit I felt able to confess - I was writing down all the different things that I do everyday and categorising them into different types of activity such as 'leisure' of 'domestic work'. Over a four-week period, I was making a study of how exactly I spend my time. Later that day one of the junior doctors called Rosie (who I got on well with) mentioned in passing that her lifestyle at the hospital didn't leave much time for either of these things.

Flo and I travelled back to Nottingham on the train. I spent the best part of the three hour journey writing day diary entries (as published on this blog). By the end of the journey I had reached the end of Tuesday 18 July - the day of The Cobra Group misadventure. I now only had five days left to write up, which I would have to complete the week after 'Part-time' had finished (I finally finished the diaries on Sunday 30 July).

We got home and, as planned, my eBay auctions were about to end. Nearly three hours of this evening was spent packaging up items and addressing them to all those who had already paid. Minus postage costs and eBay and PayPal fees I made a NET profit of 88.82GBP. Disregarding the value of the items themselves, this worked out at about 13GBP per hour for all the time I spent listing and processing the items.

At the moment that the recording process came to an end - I was so absorbed in packaging items that I didn't even realise. I looked at the large display digital watch on my wrist that was now horribly over-familiar (how many times in the last four weeks had I looked at this thing? It must be well over 3000) It was 0:12. I put my Log Book down on the counter next to where I was sat and I finally felt pleased that I had made it.

Week Four Final Hours Slip

22 July 2006

Hen Weekend

The Hen Weekend was a strange experience. Work was finally over, but I was still recording everything I did. I was still undercover, not in the world of low-end employment, but in the world of all-female mini breaks, where 50 percent of the attendees are alumni of either Oxford or Cambridge or both! I had gone from one extreme to another.

I chatted to a few of them quizzing them about their work. This was a real reality check about the notion of 'working hard' - I discovered it's perfectly normal for a junior doctor to work five twelve-hour shifts in a week. The week previous, my friend Nicola, who is a solicitor, had worked from 9:00 - 2:00 everyday at her office. I felt guilty for all my moaning and feeling sorry for myself. I tried to justify my behaviour and it came down to this:

Maybe it's not just about the work load, maybe it's the isolation that gets you down. Junior doctors and solicitors are in exactly the same situation as their colleagues - they are all able to understand what one-another are going through. They can relate to one-another's experiences, therefore can empathise and support each other.

It's a very different situation when 99 percent of the population doesn't have a clue what you are going or why you are doing it. Admittedly, they are entirely self-made pressures but they do exist in the silly little world of the undercover artist. This was my main reason for wanting the help create and then join the Union of Undercover Artists. Liz and Joanna were the only other individuals in the world who could truly identify with the pressures of 'Part-time' as they too had been through it.

When people asked me what I did I said I was 'an artist'. They then asked 'what do you paint?' I explained that I didn't paint and tried to describe what I did do. It was easiest to start with Day-to-Day Data as this could be simply termed 'organising an exhibition'. Not once did I mention what I'd been doing for the last four weeks or the fact that just two days previous I had been packing hundreds of St Tropez tan mitts in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere with a real-life chav and a family of junk food junkies.

Not until Sofie arrive that is. Sofie is an old friend who I have known since I was one (when she was born). She grew up just down the road in Ealing (just like Claudia the Hen and Nicola her sister, the over-worked solicitor). However Flo, Sofie and I comprised the only vegetarians on the trip and more than likely the only three who had attended state schools. We were ever-so-slightly different.

I told Sofie everything, the whole story: the commission from Prime, the meter reading, the agencies, the office work, Broadway, The Cobra Group, Labour Ready and all about those damn mitts. It was like therapy. Telling my story was in someway making it seem less pointless. The fact that had learnt so much and experienced so many new things - I had so much to tell - it suddenly began to seem worthwhile. Sofie seemed interested too; it obviously wasn't as boring as I had feared.

She asked what made it art and not just a sociological study - this was a very interesting question. I answered it by saying that there was certainly a lot of crossover. In a similar way that the Mass-Observation project of the 1930s was founded by writers and artists, it later became viewed as a very important anthropological study. What I had just experienced was in itself an observation on the different lifestyles I encountered - working lifestyles that I would never have otherwise come into contact with.

It made me realise just how lucky I am to do what I do (most of the time) and to be my own boss. 'Part-time' had been a re-education, making me appreciate my own life more. I like the analogy of 'Part-time' being half way between role playing game and social tourism. I was an investigative journalist, randomly stumbling across things of interest, as I desperately scrabbled around for work.

That day we did a 'gorge walk' in the Brecon Beacons. It involved eighteen of us and two instructors, walking up a stream in wellies, helmets and buoyancy aids. We climbed round rocks, sat under waterfalls, crawled underneath waterfalls, trekked up hills and finally jumped off a cliff to finish. In the evening we went to a Thai restaurant in Abergavenny and to a nightclub called The Auberge. I let my hair down a little (consuming my first alcohol, other than the pint of Guinness I had with Joanna on Monday 3 July, since 'Part-time' began), but always kept my Log Book close to hand...

21 July 2006

Wrapping Up

Today was the day of wrapping up loose ends before Flo and I went away on my friend Claudia's Hen Weekend in Abergavenny in Wales. I first called Janine at Barker Ross to explain that I would not be able to do the work at Gleeds on 31 July, to explain that I wouldn't be able to work anytime in the near future, but also to thank her for everything she had done for me.

My excuse was that 'I was going to my mum's to help her move house for at least a week, then when I returned I had a couple of freelance jobs lined up doing websites'. She seemed totally fine with it. I thanked her again and she responded with 'you don't need to thank me; it's what we get paid for!' I guess it was quite literally all-in-a-days-work for Janine.

I also called Powergen to tell them that I wouldn't be able to attend their poxy interview, for their shitty little call centre job. It was so satisfying to reject them (basically the same company as E.ON), waste a bit of their time and their money for a change. Ha Ha! (I was perfectly polite on the phone of course and have both these calls on tape to prove it).

I attempted to collect my final pay cheque from Labour Ready twice today. I first called in with Flo at 8:53, only to find the place completely closed up. It was meant to be open until 10:00 - was there really any point in it having opening hours? I had no choice but to make one final trip there on our way to the station to catch the 16:00. Fortunately this time it was open.

I felt like a different person walking into Labour Ready this time, like I really no longer belonged there. I was no longer an employee - I had no more obligations to fulfil. Once I had the cheque in my hand it was it was all over - my ordeal - my adventure - my experiment had finally come to an end. Apart from collecting data for the Prime Time spreadsheet until 23:59 on Sunday, I was free. Could I now begin to relax and enjoy myself?

20 July 2006

St Tropez Tan Mitts

I didn't sleep well at all, despite being so tired. I suffered from paranoia and had to get out of bed on several occasions to check that my bike had not been stolen. I got up at 6:18 and attempted to sort myself out a bit before I left for Labour Ready. Flo (my sister) was coming this evening and I had to tidy a little before she arrived.

I got to Labour Ready at about 7:55. I picked up my first cheque for yesterday's work - I was over the moon. I tucked it safely inside my notebook to prevent it from getting creased. I didn't want Adam to see me getting a cheque, rather than cash, as it was quite abnormal behaviour for a Labour Ready user. The more questions I could avoid the better.

Labour Ready was the busiest I had ever seen it, lots of people filling out registration forms and lots of people sitting around waiting for work as I had done on my first morning there on Monday 3 July. I felt very privileged to be waltzing in and picking up my 'work ticket', when so many here wouldn't work today.

I saw a man I recognised sitting at one of the tables, then it came to me; this was the Polish guy who had walked out of my first interview at Endeva Advertising the previous week. We were obviously treading the same job seekers path. I looked at him and smiled, though he didn't recognise me. I felt like going up to him to tell him what a lucky escape he had, what a terrible job it had been and how much better off he was at Labour Ready - work or no work.

I started to wonder why Alan had called me the previous day to offer me the work, when he quite clearly had more than enough people already signed in. Perhaps he thought I was a little brighter than some of the regulars and would do well in an office-based role. All things considered it is in Alan's best interests to send the best workers he can get his hands on out to the clients. Good workers will inevitably reflect well on Labour Ready, the clients will be impressed with the service and will want to use them again.

Adam told me that when the 'office work' had come into Labour Ready yesterday morning, I was the first person Alan had called. He didn't know anything about my experience or qualifications as he had never seen my CV - he must have just known I'd be good at it and wouldn't let him down.

Adam arrived shortly after 8:00 and we set off together for the bus stop. This morning, having spent several hours in each-others' company yesterday, it felt as though we had exhausted all possible lines of conversation. Fortunately we both managed to pick up copies of Metro which occupied us for the best part of the journey.

Today was when I really became aware of how unhealthy the employees of M & L Services' diets and lifestyles were. I arrived just before 9:00 (Adam had gone to Lidl again), to find Nicky and Emma sat goggle-eyed in front of their computers both munching their way through a packet of crisps with a chocolate bar close to hand for afters. This was either breakfast or a post-breakfast snack - I had no way of knowing.

In the office was kept a dangerous device known as a 'snack box'. A box full of crisps and chocolates that was left by the 'snack box man' and then refilled on a fortnightly basis - when you took something out you left cash behind in its place.

Before lunch break, Nicky had already reached into the snack box for her second packet of crisps. Then at 12:50 Emma declared her intention to go to 'McShits' for lunch 'come on Nicky, you're coming with me!' McDonalds was less than 10 minutes walk, yet they drove and were back before 13:00 with food for all the family (except me - they didn't bother asking me). Mum (Carol) had a Big Mac and fries, which she ate at her desk. She emptied the fries into the other side of the polystyrene burger box to create a makeshift canteen tray...

On her desk there was a large container of Saxa table salt. It looked as though this container remained on there throughout, as part of the desk furniture, and was used on a regular basis. Before even tasting a chip, Carol picked up the Saxa and with a fluid zig-zag motion, liberally covered both the Big Mac and the fries. Then with one-fell-swoop, she licked her lips, rubbed her hands together and tucked in. Had Carol, I wonder, ever considered how much salt there was in a McDonalds already?

McFlurries now long since gone, shortly after 15:00 Emma whipped out and started munching through a Mars Bar - a light afternoon snack maybe? Did they do this everyday I wondered, how is it possible to sustain this sort of lifestyle? I guess fairly easy if you're happy to carry a few spare tyres around with you until you meet with an early grave.

For the first hour of that day there was absolutely nothing for me to do. I had only been asked back to work this day as well, because the important visitors who had briefly shown their faces yesterday were due back in the late morning. M & L Services had to maintain the illusion of have lots of hard working staff.

I completed the 'B Grade' spreadsheet they had made me start the afternoon before. They then got me to reformat it into a different order, something that could have been done in a few seconds using 'Data > Sort' function in Excel, but instead they made me do it the most laborious way possible by typing out all the information again from scratch, this time in the new order.

It was during this excruciatingly tedious task, that the visitors returned and it was during their visit that I completed the newly ordered version of the spreadsheet. I mention to Nicky that I had finished. Because the visitors were in such close proximity, just outside the office likely to walk in at any moment, she panickedly said 'just type anything! Go to the bottom of the sheet and just keep typing!' So for the next few minutes I just randomly typed words, anything that came into my head, while the unsuspecting guests walked to and fro behind us. They eventually left for lunch.

In the 10 minutes that the girls were at McDonalds, I managed to get a few good pictures of the office (published above) and at 13:00 I went on my break and for a walk around the local sites. During my break I found that Janine (from Barker Ross Recruitment) had left a message on my phone. She was offering me more work at Gleeds starting on 31 July. Although I knew I wouldn't be going back I felt happy because, apparently, Sarah Brown had specifically asked for me.

To me this seemed excellent closure on the whole Barker Ross and Gleeds episode - reassurance that I had been a good worker, that they were impressed with my newly created filing system and that I had not let anyone down by being too weird or scruffy, as I had feared. I planned to call Janine tomorrow to let her know that I was no longer available for work - she had been really good to me.

After lunch the visitors were gone for good and Martin, the miserable big boss, was not there either. There was no need for any of us to pretend anymore. There was quite clearly nothing more to be done in the office so we all (except Nicky) migrated into the warehouse to the production line.

The radio was on and there was a nice atmosphere, much more relaxed than it had been in the tiny office. So for the rest of the afternoon Carol, Emma, Adam and I worked as a team packing St Tropez tan mitts into there boxes until they were all done, loaded on the pallet and fork-lift trucked towards the exit.

It was a very satisfying process, to see all the differed component parts (mitts, small boxes, stickers, large boxes, pallets, and pallet tape) come together. And was certainly light relief from staring at a computer screen. Adam was in good spirits and much more talkative in front of Emma and Carol, who joked and causally teased him. He came out with one philosophical pearl of wisdom that I won't forget for a while. It was very endearing and made me begin to self-analyse what a miserable cow I was most of the time. He said 'you gotta be appy ain't ya? Cos if yain't appy wha are ya? yor sad and nobody wants to be sad dothay?'

We caught the bus back to town again together. Adam began to get restless when we got stuck in traffic. He said he needed to get back to Labour Ready before it closed - he so desperate for the cash, he couldn't wait til the morning. He got off the bus a few stops early and ran. Overtaking all the traffic, he disappeared into the distance - that was the last I saw of him. I hoped he would be OK.

I popped into Labour Ready on my way home too, as it was still open and it would save me going back tomorrow. The man at the desk was not Alan, but someone not so nice who I did not recognise. He said he had shut down the computer and that he couldn't process my pay today. It was only 18:20 by this point and the place was meant to stay open until 19:00. This really annoyed me as I didn't want to have to go back tomorrow; I wanted to collect my cheque and to see the back of the place forever.

That night Flo (my sister) came to visit and it began to feel like the first step back to normality.

19 July 2006

Labour Ready Surprise

After The Cobra Group debacle, I had began to reside myself to the fact that if I wanted to find employment for the remaining three working days of the project, then my only option was to go back to Labour Ready. This was the only place I had discovered during my adventures in job seeking that gave any possibility of finding an immediate post.

I had not got my act together today to make the early start at Labour Ready, but had made my mind up that Thursday would definitely be the day to go back there. I hoped to find work with them in order to finish what I'd started by registering nearly three weeks ago. Since I discovered that you could be paid with a special Labour Ready cheque, if you chose not to take cash, I had my heart set on getting hold of one with my name printed on it. (If you accepted cash you were also subject to a 1GBP fee and the machine from which it was issued was also unable to pay any sums under a 1GBP - you were unnecessarily losing money). I would have been very disappointed with myself, if 'Part-time' had come to an end and I had not overcome my initial fears and worked for Labour Ready.

I was sat at my computer, having been swimming, just about to start inputting some of the data I collected yesterday (whilst working the streets) into my Prime Time spreadsheet - now well over 1800 entries. My phone began to ring. It was Alan from Labour Ready! This was so strange, was he a mind-reader? A psychic or was he my guardian angel this man? He must have known I wanted to be there, in spirit, but that I just couldn't bring myself to get up at 5:30.

He asked if I could work today at 12:00. I'd need to be at Labour Ready at 10:45 so that I could travel to the warehouse (where I'd be working), with guy who had worked there the previous week. The work would be 'data entry' and 'a bit of answering phones'; it would be for the next two days at least. I gratefully accepted, unable to fully comprehend how lucky I was. It was now 10:15 - I had half-an-hour to get ready. I put on my 'smart outfit', packed lunch and then left.

I got to Labour Ready just as Alan was about to call to ask where I was. He was brief with me and held out my 'work ticket' for me to collect. There was a small scruffy man with a small drawstring bag standing at the desk. As I arrived he started towards the door. It quickly transpired that this was Adam and we would be travelling to work together on the Rainbow 5 bus to Long Eaton. Adam explained that he had been waiting there since 10:00. He had initially 'signed-in' around 6:30, but Alan had sent him home saying that there was no work. Then when he arrived back home (in the Meadows) and got into bed, Alan had called him again to tell him to come straight back again.

Adam had been working with Labour Ready for over a year now, He referred to Alan as his 'boss'. I'd never really had the opportunity to chat to a person like Adam before. He was sweet, but had I not known it, I would certainly have given him a wide berth had we passed in the street.

His accent was rough, but didn't sound like Nottingham. It turned out that Adam (23) was from Essex. He'd moved to Nottingham three years ago, because one of his best mates had moved here. This same friend had died of a heart attack earlier in the year. Adam lived with his 'missus' who was originally from Kent and had three kids, none of which were Adam's. He was skint too; he worked at Labour Ready, collected his cash from the machine, spent it that night and came back the next day for more.

Given what Adam was wearing, tracky bottoms and a t-shirt I thought that maybe I was slightly over dressed. Adam explained however, that he would be working in the warehouse (he had a fork-lift truck licence), and I would be working in the little office that was attached. 'They' had asked for 'one boy and one girl'. I still had no idea where I was going...

'You got bus fare?' Adam asked. It was 3.10GBP to get out there and took 40 minutes. Fortunately I did. We got off the bus and popped into Lidl where Adam bought his lunch: six bottle of cola, fifteen packets of crisps and some 'savoury eggs'. Luckily I already had my lunch with me.

We were in the middle of a bleak industrial estate / retail park in Chillwell which is between Beeston and Long Eaton apparently. M & L Services (where we were heading), was in a modern corrugated iron warehouse at a dead end in the road, surrounded by other corrugated iron warehouses.

We went inside and I was introduced to the employees (much fewer than I had imagined). There was Carol and Martin, husband and wife who were the bosses, and their daughter Emma (21) who was the 'office manager'. There was Nicky (17) who worked in the office and Danny (20) who worked in the warehouse. There was a strange woman called Val, with lots of tattoos, who popped in and out with a boy Steven (17) who was Nicky's boyfriend - apparently they worked in another affiliated warehouse and had to get up at 4:30 every morning. Steven, Adam told me, earned 3.50GBP per hour because he was still under 18. We both agreed that we wouldn't get out of bed at 4:30 for 3.50GBP per hour!

There wasn't much for me to do at the warehouse to start off with, so I took the opportunity to have a snoop around. M & L Services, it appears, does many different things. It calls itself 'Stock Rectification Specialists' - probably one of the most ambiguous company descriptions I've ever heard. As far as I could work out there were various strands to the business.

The first is a contract with Argos supplying spare parts for all of the exercise bikes sold through their catalogue. In fact they operate the 'exercise bike helpline', the number for which is probably published in the back of the Argos manuals. In the two days that I worked at M & L Services, I didn't hear the special Argos phone ring once. I guess nobody was having problems with their bikes.

The next thing they do is a contract with 'The Cotswold Company' supplying tacky flat-packed furniture. Cotswold sends the orders through via a networked computer programme and M & L Services ship the goods out to the customers.

They also operate two eBay businesses. One selling the same tacky flat-packed furniture directly to eBay shoppers and the second under the username 'fitcamp123' selling tents - bargain tents.

The last thing that it appears they do, which perhaps could be loosely described as 'stock rectification', is assembling or packaging products. When I was there, they were processing (or maybe rectifying) an order of 5000 St Tropez tan mitts. The black mitts, apparently used for the application of fake tanning lotion and 'body polish', came in bin-bag-sized bags. The boxes came separately, flat-packed. M & L Services were responsible for assembling each box, inserting a mitt into it (folded in two) and then packing two-dozen into larger brown cardboard boxes. These boxes were labelled and then placed on a pallet. 100 boxes made a full pallet. Two-and-a-bit pallets would make the full order.

First of all, I was working in the office with Nicky and Emma. Nicky was responsible for delegating tasks to me. I was very surprised when I found out that she was only 17 - she seemed too mature and serious. Maybe that is what happens when you leave school at 16 and go straight into work. It's a sudden reality check; you have to grow up pretty damn quick. She began working there two weeks after finishing school. It felt as though she had been cheated out of several years of her childhood, stuck in this dull little office day-in day-out.

Nicky got me started inputting eBay tent orders to a spreadsheet. They had had a virus in the system the previous week and had lost over a week's worth of spreadsheets. I was re-inputting the data to recreate the lost files.

All the employees of M & L Services were slightly on edge that day because they were expecting important visitors. One of the big bosses from Argos was coming together with a Spanish business associate who I think was the man who shipped over the tacky furniture. One of the main reasons they called Labour Ready and employed myself and Adam, was to make it appear to the visitors that they had more 'permanent staff' and ran a busy and productive operation. There were certain rules that we had to adhere to when the visitors arrived:

Firstly, there was to be no mention of Labour Ready. As far as they were concerned we worked there industriously everyday. The second rule was that there was to be no mention of anything to do with eBay. I wasn't sure why, but it was obvious that the visitors had no idea that they operated this side of the business. Whether it was because they thought eBay looked unprofessional or whether there was something underhand going on, I could not tell.

The office was to be spotless, everyone dressed smartly, all eBay papers hidden from site and Nicky was to be on read alert to make drinks for them as soon as they arrived.

The day dragged on and there was still no sign of them. I had re-entered a lot of the lost data and inputted some of their recent Cotswold orders. As it neared the end of the day Nicky was fast running out of things for me to do. This was no good - I had to look busy and purposeful when the visitors arrived. While I was still in the room, Nicky, Emma and Carol discussed exactly which menial task they could find for me to do next. They were clutching at straws, when Carol suggested taking an existing spreadsheet, intentionally erasing the contents and getting me to re-input it just for the sake of it - I nearly choked.

This was all too ironic; all they wanted me to do was to look busy by working on a spreadsheet. If only they knew how much data entry I had building up for my own Prime Time spreadsheet. I was going to have to spend the best part of two hours doing that when I got home and here they were arguing about finding me some more pointless data to process. God! I was the queen of pointless data - I had pointless data up to my eyeballs!

Of course there was no way I could mention this. I was undercover which meant these two worlds could never collide. After a fair amount of discussion they found there was something not entirely useless for me to do - I had to update the 'B Grade' stock list. Using the warehouse staff's handwritten notes I was to input information about the defects found on certain pieces of furniture they had in store. I was told to 'work slowly' on it so it lasted until 'they' arrived. 'They' were stuck in traffic on the M1.

The visitors were so late that Adam and I were asked to work later til 18:15 instead of 17:30 as Alan had arranged. We didn't really have much to say in the matter, so it's just as well neither of us had other plans for after work.

When 'they' finally arrived it was all a bit of an anti-climax. They didn't really want drinks and they didn't spend more than a few seconds in the office where we were sat so diligently typing.

Shortly after 18:00 they left and Carol was able to sign our 'work tickets' without fear of being spotted colluding with a temping agency. We weren't sure whether it was a mistake, but she accidentally put 6.25 hours on our slips meaning that she paid us for out lunch break, which she not Labour Ready policy. An extra 2.57GBP hey! Almost enough to cover the bus fare.

I didn't get back til after 19:00 that night. After dinner I started my own data inputting on the Prime Time spreadsheet. Every entry was a struggle, but I forced myself to plough though it, going on and on forever. An hour-and-a-half into it I was exhausted. I stared at the screen and began breathing deeply and heavily and then more rapidly until I began to hyper-ventilate. What was happening to me? Was this a spreadsheet induced panic attack? I sure felt like it. I felt so trapped, my room was such a tip there was stuff all over my bed, there was nowhere to go. Eventually Jon found my and made me wash my hands and face. He cleared my bed and put me in it.

18 July 2006

The Cobra Group

The following text is different from the rest of the day diaries, in that it was written in the heat of the moment on the evening of the actual day the main event described took place - Tuesday 18 July. It outlines some of the back stories (replicated in previous day diary entries) in order to contextualise events, so that it can also read as a standalone piece.

On Wednesday 12 July, after discovering that I was no longer required at Gleeds, the construction company where I had worked as an office temp the week previous, I bought a copy of the Evening Post. Wednesday was the day for the weekly recruitment section.

Reading through the paper, I quickly discovered that many of the jobs were things that were skilled, permanent or would not start for a few weeks. Nothing that would suit my needs as an employee of Prime. Now two-and-a-half weeks into the commissioning period I required something immediate and temporary. I had already planned that my last working day would be Friday 21 July.

The only jobs I could find that had the words I was looking for in the specs 'no experience necessary' and 'immediate start', were mysterious looking - attracting your attention with catchphrases and claims of high earning. There was no mention of the company you would be working for or the job you might be doing.

The next day I called two these numbers (I have both these conversations on tape). The first turned out to be a marketing company called Endeva Advertising. I spoke to a friendly Australian lady called Belinda. She asked me what experience I had and why I wanted to work for them. I found the second a little difficult to answer, as I didn't really know anything about the company, but just made up the usual nonsense about learning new skills and meeting new people.

Belinda seemed pleased with my responses and offered me an interview the following day, Friday 14 July. I was really pleased, at this rate I might be able to start on Monday and to clock up some more hours towards the 'quota' imposed by Prime.

By this point of the commissioning period, I had pretty much given up caring what sort of work I was looking for. I'd do anything and I'd do it now (at least that's what I thought). The situation (being employed by Prime) reminded me of when I was a 15 year old; when the national curriculum dictated that I must find 'work experience' for the final two weeks of the academic year (coincidently the last weeks in July!)

When it came to the point when I had to find this 'work experience' I started with high hopes. Idealistic (in a similar way to the start of Prime), that I could find something 'interesting' and 'relevant'. When I discovered that this was a lot harder than I imagined, my expectations dropped to the point that I would, in fact, do anything. In the end my dear mother stepped in and found me a role at the college that she worked in - Uxbridge College. I spent two weeks as a scivvy for one of her colleagues, photocopying and having tasks fabricated, with the sole intention of occupying my time.

History aside, my spirits lifted when I secured my interview at Endeva Advertising. After my experience at Gleeds (which I now realise I was exceptionally lucky to find), I was quite looking forward to working in the office of a city centre advertising company.

I turned up for my interview on Friday about 10 minutes early. The office was in an old building above Cafe Rouge on Barker Gate, which is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the city. I rang the intercom and Belinda buzzed me in. I walked up the stairs and into the reception. There were nine people sitting around in what was quite a small, but pleasant room. Could they all be here for the interview? It transpires that they were. I had to complete an application form. I decided to go for broke and write that I had a degree and was self employed as a 'freelance artist'. I really wanted to get this job and it looked like I had a lot of competition. I also had to rate myself out of 5 for things like 'communication skills' and 'self confidence' I went for 5 for most of them (why not?)

Belinda, who sat behind a desk, was in a jolly mood. She kept throwing questions out to the nine of us, as if to make one big happy conversation. What are you lot all doing this afternoon then? Who do you reckon is getting kicked out of Big Brother this evening? Or how long have I got to put up with this cricket for (referring to the radio commentary)? These all sound more authentic in an Australian accent - please try at home.

I couldn't help but feel that I was already being tested. Were the ones who responded to Belinda's chitchat, the ones more likely to be employed? There was a wide range of magazines on the table, some 'men's magazines' like GQ and Esquire, some 'women's' like Elle and Red and some 'unisex' like Empire. Would you also be judged on the magazine you picked up? I went for Empire. I giggled to myself about the conspiracy theories I had concocted, but also, more importantly, because I (more than anybody else in the room), had a secret agenda for being there on that day.

A tall man came into the office and called four of us out for the interview. We followed him into a small board room, where he said 'sit wherever you like' - another test I thought; there were five normal chairs and one larger, more ostentatious office chair. Each of the candidates, including myself went for the regular chairs around the sides of the table. Chris (the tall man) sat at one end and his colleague Nick sat at the other (in the big chair).

The interview focussed almost entirely on the information we had supplied on our forms. He quizzed us each one-by-one about the information we had supplied, questioning whether we had been correct to rate ourselves so highly. One man, who was Polish, stood up half way through this process, said 'sorry I have to go' and left. I didn't blame him really, it was quite an intimidating experience and Chris was quite an authoritarian character (despite being only 25).

He explained that Endeva Advertising was 'his company' and that it was a 'fun place to work'. He was only looking to employ a few people and was interviewing 34, so it was very competitive. If we were successful today, we would be invited back for a 'second interview' in which we would spend a day shadowing one of the sales team and learning more about the company. Either way, we would find out later today when Belinda would call us.

Around 19:00, I began to think that I hadn't got the job and that nobody was going to call. I began to resign myself to the fact that I was unemployable and good for nothing. Then at 20:12 my mobile began to ring - it was Belinda, what was she doing still at work at this time on a Friday night? She said 'Chris was very pleased with how it went today and would like to invite you back for a second interview on Tuesday' - I was to go back to the office for 11:45.

It was nice of them to give me a late start on my first day, I thought, very considerate. I spent the most part of the weekend feeling guilty. If I got the job on Tuesday (they had said in the interview that they were looking to employ temporary staff for 10-12 weeks), I would have to quit almost straight away. I was going to feel awful after Belinda and Chris had been so nice to me and had taken a chance on inviting me back.

Anyway, Tuesday arrived and the thought of letting them down, was still in my mind as I walked towards the office. When I got to reception, I was surprised to see that there were as many, if not more, people waiting. We sat patiently as Belinda carried on her one-sided banter. I chatted to the girl next to me, asking her if she knew anything about what the job actually involved. She said she didn't. The longer we waited the more curious I became.

After about half-an-hour, Chris's right-hand man, Nick, came into the room and called a few out, explaining that we would each be paired off with a sales person to shadow. After a few minutes, I saw some of the interviewees leaving the building with their work partners. Then it was my turn. I was taken out to the back and introduced to a short, fat, bald man called Barry. I was told to stick with Barry all day and to ask as many questions as I wanted. Then later on I would be brought back to the office for a 'final interview' based on what I had learnt.

At this point I asked what time that would be and I was told 8-9ish (!?) I was now beginning to understand why they didn't ask me to start at 9:00. What could we possibly be doing that would take us until then? Barry led me out of the room and down the stairs. He said we were going to get some lunch first. This is nice, I thought, a nice relaxing lunch to get to know each other before beginning work.

It quickly transpired that we were following two of the other work pairs, with two of the other interviewees. One was the girl who had sat next to me in reception, Becky, an 18 year old who had just left boarding school after finishing her A-Levels, and a black guy called Benedict who was a college student in Nottingham.

As we walked between the office and Flavour Sandwich Bar in Hockley, I began to quiz Barry about what we would be doing. He was very cagey at first, not giving me entirely straight answers. I asked when we would be going back to the office and he said we wouldn't. What? I eventually began to piece things together. What we would actually be doing, was walking around St Ann's (one of Nottingham's poorest areas), going door-to-door asking people to sign up to pay a direct debit to a charity called Action for the Blind.

I began to feel quite angry that I had been tricked into this situation. I was now about to embark on a day of door-to-door salesman work on what was then the hottest day of the year so far. Why hadn't they told us what we would be doing beforehand: I was angry that I had no water, no suntan lotion and a heavy bag on me and I was about to spend the next seven-and-a-half hours traipsing through the streets.

Marketing company? I was beginning to realise how foolish I had been. They weren't interviewing that many people because the jobs were so competitive, but rather, because they were desperate to find people to do this work - probably the most degrading, tedious and soulless job on the planet.

At this point, I could (and under any other circumstances I would), have upped and left - accusing them of misleading me and of time wasting. But I didn't. As an employee of Prime, I saw this 'second interview' as valuable hours, in fact a whole day's work, to rack up against my 'quota'. Actually it had everything I desired. I could 'work', no strings attached for a day. Then at the end of the day, feeling no guilt towards a company which had misled me so cruelly, I could just leave. Perfect. So with this in mind I embraced my new role.

Barry explained more about the company as we walked towards the target area of streets, a little way out of town. First and foremost, you did not get paid. You did not get paid a penny unless you signed people up to the charity. They termed this 'a piece'. For every piece, you received 17GBP. You therefore worked to goals, aiming to get five pieces a day, earning yourself a tidy 85GBP. However, there was one small catch called the 'bond'. For every piece you get, 8GBP of your 17GBP fee gets held by the company in the bond. If the customer cancels their direct debit within three months, you do not get this part of the fee - meaning you have to wait three months to find out whether you will or will not earn the full 17GBP.

Immediately my mind went to the charities, just how much are they forking out for this service? Well as far as I could work out it breaks down like this. The Cobra Group is a multi-national company which runs thousands of smaller 'offices' all over the world, like the one in Nottingham - Endeva Advertising. They find the clients, like the charities, credit card companies, electricity providers etc. They then supply the offices with the clients - Endeva Advertising is solely focussed on 'charity work'.

The companies, or in this case the charities pay The Cobra Group a set fee for every customer they sign up (or for every 'piece', as I now like to say). I was not given a set figure for this, as Barry didn't know it, but I'm guessing it is around 40-45GBP. The Cobra Group takes a cut of this fee and passes on 33GBP to the 'office' - Endeva Advertising. Endeva take a cut and pass on 17GBP to the sales representative (me). Then if the sale is cancelled within the three month period, the 8GBP is taken from person at the bottom of the chain (the sales representative) and refunded directly back to the client (the charity). Therefore the charity only has to fork out around 32-37GBP for failed attempts. The two middle men don't suffer either way.

What you end up with, is a load of people working for free. Not because it's for 'charity', but because some fat-cat middle men (at The Cobra Group and Chris at Endeva Advertising) are skimming off all the profits. After a while I began to realise that it wasn't really that bad for the charities to invest their marketing budget in this sort of 'direct marketing', because the results were (percentage wise), so much better than any leafleting campaign could ever hope for - that is why they do it. It did make me realise, however, that I never want to support a 'big charity' that gives money away to scum like The Cobra Group.

So what's in it for the Sales representatives you may well ask? Why do they slog away Monday - Friday, 12:00 - 20:30 and Saturday afternoon every week, with no job security and no knowing what they will earn from one week to the next? There must be a carrot on the end of a stick somewhere? Well there is and it's called promotion, working your way up in the company until you become like Chris, managing director of his own 'office' earning, as they kept telling me, up to 50,000GBP per week! (Wow I am so excited... hmmm). Well we all know were this money comes from.

At around 15:00 the team reconvened in a dodgy pub in St Ann's for 'a break'. We all have a drink as we are pretty hot, burnt and exhausted already by then. Barry buys my drink for me, out of his own money no doubt. During 'the break', Dave, who is the furthest up the ladder of the rest of the team, explains the promotional structure to me. Stage 1 (where I am now), to stage 5 where Chris is - can be achieved in just 18 months. When you are at Stage 4, as Nick is, you are allowed to break away and start your own 'office'. To do this you are expected to save (out of your own earnings) 10,000GBP to invest. This way, these individuals believe they are running their 'own businesses' and The Cobra Group has to lay out no money whatsoever to expand. God they are bastards!

But you can't keep expanding indefinitely, I asked - soon you will run out of doors to knock on. Dave assures me there is plenty of room for expansion; in fact London currently only has 8 offices!

When we arrived for a break there was no sign of Becky. She had complained about wearing unsuitable shoes, of sore feet and had gone. I knew the moment I found out what we were doing that she would hate it. The irony is that in the reception whilst waiting, we had had a conversation about 'hideous sales jobs' not knowing what we were letting ourselves in for. At the end of the break, with still four hours to go before the end of play, Benedict makes some excuse about college work and ups and leaves too! And then there was one - I wasn't about to leave. Despite the heat, it was easy work just watching Barry in action and because of Prime it just happened that I was the only person getting paid to be there.

So then we got back to work. During the three hours before the break, we covered 3 streets, knocking on around 60 houses and speaking to about 25 people. Barry has the banter down to a tee and says the same thing every time. Despite his cheery persona we are yet to make a single 'piece'. We soldier on. Barry's tactic is to knock on the door. When the person opens the door (if they do), he says, chuckling, 'hello, have you had a nice day?' then 'don't worry, we're not as bad as we look, we're doing some work in the local area for blind people (pointing at his 'chugger' vest, with the words 'Action for the Blind' printed on it). 'We're not collecting today, don't worry... do you know anyone who is blind or partially sighted? You can imagine how hard it can be to do the little things we take for granted, like reading, writing or making a cup of tea... it can be very scary. So I take it you think what we are doing today is a good thing?' to which they invariable answer 'yes'.

'There is a catch to what we are doing' Barry confesses, 'we need to raise £6000 per week so that the charity can carry on its good work... Now we're not asking you to donate all of that, though it would be nice if you would!' (chuckle). 'We're just asking everyone to chip in a very small amount'. The next bit is said very quickly indeed. 'We're asking you to-in-about-four-or-five-weeks-time-to-chip-in-something-small-like-one-pound-fifty-at-the-end-of-each-week-for-as-long-as-you-want-to... we have just a very simple form to fill out, it all goes directly through the bank, because nobody wants to see my face round here every week!' (chuckle). 'This way you can be sure all the money goes directly to the charity and so the government also contribute via Gift Aid. So what we're doing today is just filling out a very simple form, so I guess I can count you in on this one - have you got a flat surface to fill out the form?'

32 out of 33 times that day, this final question was met with a variety of excuses. 'I'll have to ask my husband', 'I can't afford it', 'I already give to charity', 'I don't give my bank details out to people knocking at my door'. Most of which I found completely valid, and in fact I would have happily used myself had the tables been turned.

The one woman that we did sign up was a young Asian mother; I couldn't help but feel guilty for colluding in the abduction of her bank details. What upset me the most was the fact that a lot of people actually saw us as do-gooders who actually cared about blind people - voluntary charity workers giving up our time for the good of the cause. The sad thing is that we were both (until Barry got his piece) voluntary workers, not because of the goodness of our hearts, but in Barry's case because of his greed and desire to climb the promotional ladder, and in mine because I had been commissioned to take part in an art project that required me to work.

At about 18:00, Barry and I stopped for a break. We had completed our first circuit and were about to knock again on the doors of all the houses who had not answered the first time. Barry and I had got on pretty well, really, all things considered. We had had a laugh when Barry (with Dave on backing beat box) sang me his 'Pork Pie Rap'. 'Go Barry, it's your pork pie, you're gonna eat it like it's your pork-pie. B to the A to the double R, Y - go Barry'. I had a little go (despite being a closet vegetarian) substituting Barry for Ellie 'E to the double L, I, E - go Ellie!'

During our chat, in which we ate Smartie Ice creams donated to us by a do-gooder who felt guilty for not signing up, Barry asked me 'what did I think so far?'. When faced with question as direct as this I couldn't lie, I couldn't pretend any longer - it would look ridiculous if I pretended now that I loved the job and then did a complete U-turn two-and-a-half hours later in the office face-to-face with Chris. Barry deserved better than that. So I told the truth. 'To be honest, I don't think I can see my self doing this... I don't think I have the motivation to keep myself going every day... I can see there are great opportunities (ha, ha) in terms of the promotional structure, but seeing that I am just looking for temporary work, I wouldn't be with the company long enough to benefit from them'.

Barry looked sad, you could tell he was disappointed if not slightly offended. I continued 'I wanted to see today through, as I don't like to quit at things (like the other two)... it has been a really interesting experience'. After a few minutes, Barry asked whether, given the way I feel now, I thought it was worth continuing with the 'second interview' and working the houses til 20:30. I looked at my watch (it was 18:16) and then at my sun burn and decided well actually it probably wasn't. So I wished Barry the best, thanked him for letting me tag along and wished him good luck with the rest of the night's work. I turned, rounded the corner and walked home.

Second Interview

This was the day of the infamous 'second interview' with Endeva Advertising. It is described in detail in The Cobra Group text publish above. Here I recall a few additional observations from this day.

Before I had the interview I couldn't help but feel guilty about the possibility of letting them down. Given that it was the last week of 'Part-time', I would have to tell them that I could only work the four remaining days and that I would have to leave early on Friday to catch my train to Abergavenny for the Hen Weekend I had been invited to.

This thought preoccupied me from the first interview on Friday 14 July up until the exact moment I discovered what I had been lured into - door-to-door sales. Then I felt no guilt whatsoever.

We sat in the waiting room for a long while, there were at least ten other candidates in there. As we waited Trent FM blared out of a small stereo. Every five minutes the hideous radio adverts kicked in. As we sat there in silence, I was amused that two of these adverts directly addressed 'unemployed people', 'looking for work?', promoting job fairs that were forthcoming in the autumn.

I looked around the room as if to make eye contact and share the coincidence with one of my fellow job seekers, but nobody seemed to notice.

During the day, I tried my best to maintain my Log Book with the start and end times of each activity we undertook. I was desperate to take photographs - it would have been fantastic to have just one action shot of Barry going door-to-door, chatting with people, but I was too full of fear. I could be lynched if they found out what I was really up to.

On several occasions, Barry caught me writing in my Log Book. At first he jokingly commented 'you're not one of those undercover reporters are you?' I assured him that I was not and that I was simply making notes for my interview that evening with Chris. However the fact that Barry had asked this question in the first place, was rather telling.

- Had this happened to them before - an undercover reporter attending one of their training days and writing an expose?
- Or was Barry secretly admitting to the fact that there was a story here - that Endeva Advertising deserved to be exposed?

When Barry was convinced that there was nothing untoward with my note taking, he changed his tact - repeatedly suggesting that in actually fact 'you're writing my autobiography' (sic). He even told the others this over break.

At several points in the day, I expressed my anger at being dragged into this situation without pre-warning. At 'break time' Dave had the cheek to respond with this: 'the reason we do it like this is so that people get a real feel for the job, see exactly what we do, before they start work. Have you ever been to an interview for a job and then started the next day and discovered it was not what you thought it would be?' to which I replied 'yes! Today! I came to an interview on Friday for a job, which to all intent-and-purposes looked like an office job for a marketing company, and now here I am four days later training to be a door-to-door salesperson!'

I don't think me and Dave would ever see eye-to-eye. When he gave me 'the chat' at break time, he talked about training staff with sales skills. He explained that once you learned the skills you could sell anything you wanted: credit cards, electricity supplies, breakdown cover (all products marketed by other Cobra Group offices).

If you say so Dave, but it's one thing to go door-to-door trying to get people to sign up to a charity and quite another to get them to sign up to a credit card. Dave insisted that it was not, that it was exactly the same. He was not able to acknowledge that morally these to acts were wildly different.

17 July 2006

Feedback Anti-Climax

This morning I finally managed to speak to Andy Chamberlain, the middle aged man from E.ON who had interviewed me for the meter installation job back on Wednesday 28 June. It had taken around eight phone calls over the course of the three weeks to get to this point, so boy was I ready for some life changing words of wisdom! Unfortunately the 'feedback' didn't really live up to expectation (or the price of the phone calls for that matter). All he could tell me was that 'I did not score high enough'. Every question I had answered was scored out of 10, my total score was then totted up and compared with the other candidates and unfortunately was not high enough to be selected. He reassured me, however, that there was nothing glaringly wrong. Apparently I had passed the colour blind and tool tests, which was nice to know.

Apart from final retrieving my 'feedback' from E.ON, today was a quiet day for 'Part-time'. I had my appointment at the dermatology clinic booked for 11:45, which meant I was unable to go back to Labour Ready first thing. I had my 'second interview' with Endeva Advertising lined up for Tuesday, which would hopefully be a good day's work, so I spent this Monday catching up on things. I spent several hours writing day diary entries, managing to complete up to Thursday 13 July.

In the morning my final set of Panini World Cup stickers (which I had requested on the swap forum website) arrived from Switzerland - this was the last lot I was waiting for. I now only needed 48 more, which meant I could send a cheque to Panini stating the numbers I required and I could finally complete my album. It was a really satisfying moment - this sticker book had become an obsession, which had wasted so much (days even), of my time. Finally I would be free from it!

In the evening we went to Broadway Cinema to watch Thank You For Smoking. I get free cinema tickets when I'm not working, so try to see as many films as possible.